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"Keep tabs on"

Posted by Lewis on October 17, 2003

In Reply to: "Keep tabs on" posted by R. Berg on October 17, 2003

: : Does anyone know the origin of the phrase "keep tabs on" (to monitor)?

: It comes from keeping accounts, maintaining records of charges. The Oxford English Dictionary labels "tab" in this sense as U.S. colloquial and defines it as "A table, an account [cf. TABLET . . . ]; a check." The earliest use of the phrase recorded in the OED is dated 1889: "Every man keeps a mean little tab in his head on his fellows" (Washington Post).

Why am I doubting that the Washington Post should be the first use of the word 'tab'?

Bearing in mind that inkeepers/publicans kept a note of credit given to customers on slates and an alternative word for a writing slate is 'tablet'- it seems implausible that the WP was not simply recording a long-used expression. Anybody know?